This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 8, 2017: Saints

May 8, 2017: birthday: Phillis Wheatley

Today is believed to be the birthday of poet Phillis Wheatley (books by this author), born in West Africa, most likely in Senegal or Gambia (1753). She was kidnapped and put on a slave ship, the Phillis, when she was eight years old. She ended up at a slave auction in Boston, where John Wheatley, a prominent tailor, bought her as a personal servant for his wife, Susanna. She was slender, frail, and asthmatic, and the captain believed she was terminally ill, so he sold her at a greatly reduced price.

The Wheatleys named her Phillis after the ship that had brought her to Boston, and she took their last name, as was customary. It soon became apparent that the child was exceptionally bright, so she was taught to read and write by the older Wheatley children. She mastered English in two years and went on to learn Latin and Greek, and translated a story by Ovid. She studied astronomy, geography, history, and British literature — especially John Milton and Alexander Pope. She began writing poetry as a teenager, and the first poem she wrote was probably “To the University of Cambridge in New England” — although she didn’t publish it until she was older. She published her first poem in a Rhode Island newspaper when she was 13; that was “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” (1767). But it was “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine … George Whitefield” (1770) that brought her wide renown.

In 1772, Wheatley appeared in court to prove that she really was the author of her poems. She was examined by 17 Boston men, who then signed an affidavit that was included in the preface for her first and only book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). No one in Boston would publish her book, so she went to London in 1773, escorted by the Wheatleys’ son Nathaniel. With the help of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, she found a publisher there.

English friends appealed to John and Susanna Wheatley to grant Phillis her freedom, and she was manumitted in 1778.

She was an admirer of George Washington and the fight for American independence from Great Britain. She wrote several poems in Washington’s honor and he invited her to his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1776. But she rarely wrote about herself, or her childhood in Africa, or her life as a slave. The most notable exception was “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which includes the lines “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.”

In 1778, she married John Peters, a free black man from Boston. They had three children together, but two died in infancy and the third, a son, was a sickly baby. They were terribly short of money, and Wheatley worked as a scullery maid in a boarding house. It was hard work under poor conditions, unlike the relatively easy life she had had the Wheatleys. One Wheatley relative remarked: “The woman who had stood honored and respected in the presence of the wise and good … was numbering the last hours of life in a state of the most abject misery, surrounded by all the emblems of a squalid poverty!” In 1784, her husband was thrown in jail for debt. Phillis Wheatley, whose health had always been poor, died in poverty, followed just a few hours later by their baby son.